“The Hall of Murals,” contains eleven large scale oil paintings commissioned by Dr. Max Thorek in 1953, created by created by Count Gregorio Calvi de Borgolo. The eleven paintings each depict a significant moment, shift, or theme in medical history.
Read More About Each Painting:
Anesthesia: Scientists throughout history have experimented with many plants and chemicals to soothe the excruciating pain of surgery. The four men in this painting brought anesthetic gas to the doctor’s office in the 1800s – from upper class parties. Crawford W. Long, a Georgia doctor, saw that when people inhaled the chemical ether for fun at “ether frolics,” they also did not feel any pain. He began to use it in tumor removals, amputations, and childbirth, but did not announce his discovery. The Vermont dentist Horace Wells attended a “laughing gas party” and observed a man break his leg without complaint. He began using the “laughing gas,” or nitrous oxide, to painlessly pull teeth. However, his public demonstration inexplicably failed. William T.G. Morton, a Massachusetts dentist, used ether in the first successful demonstration of general anesthesia a year later, in 1846. Charles T. Jackson, a physician from Massachusetts, accused Morton of stealing his discovery. The dispute lasted the rest of their lives without agreement, so they share the credit today.
Women’s Health: This painting depicts the first ovariotomy, or removal of an abnormal ovary. It took place in Kentucky in 1809 by Ephraim McDowell, before anesthesia or antibiotics. Gynecology has an ancient history. The female body, as the creator of life, has long been revered as well as subjected to superstition. The female reproductive organs have been falsely accused of causing different ailments, but advancements in the understanding of female anatomy have improved treatments for many diseases and difficult childbirth. The ancient Greeks thought that the womb (uterus) moved throughout the body, affecting other organs and the mind. Other myths about the female body and mind persisted well through the mid-20th century, even after human dissections began to explore reproductive organs in the early second century. Pelvic surgery advanced slowly as understandings of anatomy improved. Leonardo DaVinci first described how a fetus looks in the womb in the late 1400s. Vesalius provided the first thorough description of the entire female reproductive organs in the late 1500s. The first step-by-step illustrations of pelvic and vaginal surgery were developed in the 1600s.
Medical Progress: This image shows Dr. Lister and Dr. Pasteur receiving an award in Paris for their contributions to medicine. The theory of germs and sanitation introduced by Dr. Semmelweis was first rejected because it suggested that invisible forces were responsible for illness – a general theory from which this new enlightened age had distanced itself. However, it was accepted only a few years later when Joseph Lister and Louis Pasteur proved that microscopic germs exist and developed sterilization methods. Surgical infections have practically disappeared from hospitals since their discoveries. It has taken many centuries of groundbreaking discoveries to bring medicine to where it is today. New technology and theories often clash with accepted cultural ideologies. The perseverance and sacrifices of doctors and patients alike have saved countless lives.
The Cause of Disease: The Hungarian obstetrician Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis’s insistence upon personal cleanliness and strict hospital hygiene in the maternity ward of the General Hospital of Vienna drastically reduced maternal mortality. However, this practice was almost universally rejected until Joseph Lister promoted the sanitation of operating rooms and equipment in the 1870s. Before this, there were many theories for how diseases started and spread, many of which were spiritual or superstitious. Illnesses were often blamed on curses or sins. There was no understanding of germs. Hippocrates of ancient Greece thought that an imbalance in the “four humours” – blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile – made people sick. This theory persisted for hundreds of years. Another popular theory was that “bad air,” or miasma, caused disease. Flowers and perfumes were often placed around the sick in an attempt to ward sickness away.
Anatomy Lesson: The ancient Greek physician Herophilus, shown here, first practiced dissection upon human and animal bodies. In ancient Rome, with human autopsies forbidden, anatomical demonstrations were made only on animals. Gradually, however, European countries legalized the dissection of executed criminals for educational purposes, as seen in this painting of such a lesson at the University of Padua in Italy. Since bodies were not legally available in the United Kingdom until the late 1800s, eventually the crime of “burking” arose. Scottish murderers Burke and Hare would sell their victims for dissection. The alternative was grave robbing, committed by “resurrectionists.” Dissections give scientists knowledge of anatomy, of the causes of diseases, and of their cures. It was essential for the advancement of surgery.
Science and Religion: Michael Servetus, a Spanish priest, was a physician and surgeon of great ability. In 1553 he published Restitutio Christianismi, a theological treatise in which he also showed how blood flows from the heart to the lungs. Servetus soon came into conflict with both the Calvinistic reformers and the authorities of the Roman Catholic Church for his religious writings. He was condemned to burn at the stake with all traceable copies of his book. Now only three original copies still exist. In pre-modern Europe, science and religion mostly co-existed peacefully. Research was carried out alongside religious studies. Schools, research, and hospitals were funded by religious organizations. Doctors were often priests as well. During the Inquisition of the 16th century, however, many individuals who were condemned for their controversial religious ideas had also developed ground-breaking medical theories. Many published both of these in the same books, as Servetus did.
Trephination: Trephination, shown here, is thought to be the earliest surgical operation. It developed around the world thousands of years ago and continued with little change. The skull was drilled, scraped, or cut to treat head injuries, headaches, hallucinations, epilepsy, and more. Evidence of trephination has been found on ancient and historical human skulls, such as those on display in the museum from ancient Peru, Mexico, and Bolivia. The skulls show signs of bone re-growth, proving that patients actually survived the procedure. It was originally thought that trephination in these countries was painful and brutal, as depicted in this image. However, cacao leaves were used as a local anesthetic. Europeans practicing trephination had no such knowledge. Today, trephination is still performed to relieve pressure on the brain. Modern anesthesia, antiseptic, and neurosurgery techniques make brain disorder diagnosis and treatment possible with minimal complications.
Early Amputations: Amputations were performed as early as the time of Hippocrates (c. 460-370 B.C.) but only if gangrene was present. The advent of gunshot wounds and other war injuries spurred many advances in instruments, techniques, and post-operative treatments. This painting depicts the agonies of an amputation in pre-modern Europe. Germs were not understood, so the surgeon would cut through the limb without cleaning his hands or tools between patients. The surgeon used a knife to cut through the flesh and a saw to cut through the bone, snapping off the bone once about halfway through. While the patient would have taken alcohol to stupefy him, anesthesia had not been discovered, so men had to hold him still. The difficulties of performing a painful operation on a struggling patient meant that speed was very desirable, and the most skilled surgeons could perform the operation in 30 seconds. Due to these advances and to the discovery of anesthesia and antisepsis, modern amputations are performed painlessly and with practically no mortality.
Early Hospitals: Medieval European hospitals, like the one depicted here, were often situated within a Catholic church. Many were built specially for lepers who were the poor social outcasts of medieval Europe. There was no separation between the space for the religious services and the area for the hospital. Here, a priest and two altar servers can be seen celebrating Mass in the background as nurses (typically nuns and monks) attend to patients in the foreground. Large centers for treating patients were not a staple of public medical care until the 1700s. Before this, such institutions were religious charities that cared for the sick and injured through food and prayer. Illnesses were often thought to result from some spiritual impurity, thus treatments were often religious interventions. At this time, little was known about sanitation. Patients were put into a bed that had just been occupied by another patient without first cleaning the linens. Illnesses were thought to be caused by bad smells, so elaborate gardens were often created for patients to get fresh air.
Anatomical Illustration: This mural depicts Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), the father of anatomy, showing his famous Seven Books on the Structure of the Human Body to Emperor Charles V of Spain. It was the first complete book of anatomy and is still considered very accurate. Knowledge of human anatomy was originally reserved for the select few who could attend school. Early scientists did not have great access to human corpses. They often dissected animals instead and drew illustrations for medical textbooks, assuming they were similar to humans. Textbooks such as these made the study of anatomy more widely accessible, though these books were expensive as they were all hand-drawn. The invention of the European printing press in 1450 made books cheaper and more widely available. By this time human dissections were also becoming more acceptable, and more accurate anatomical illustrations were produced.
War and Surgery: This mural depicts French surgeon Ambroise Paré treating wounded men in 1536. Paré overthrew the established practice of cauterizing gunshot wounds and the stumps from amputations, instead applying salves and tying off severed blood vessels. Paré, like many military surgeons, later adapted his new techniques to the general practice of surgery. The battlefield has been a training ground for surgeons throughout history. Weapons often advance much more quickly than medical treatment. The ever-increasing number and variety of injuries that occur in combat encourage the development of new surgical methods to treat them. Post-surgical intervention such as prosthetic limbs flourished when veterans returned home.